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Could Queen and 53 Commonwealth heads of state be Northern Ireland-bound?

... yes, if Lord Diljit Rana can pull off his plan to host the biennial leaders' conference in Belfast in 2018

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 10/10/2016

The Queen and other leaders at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Uganda
The Queen and other leaders at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Uganda
Lord Dilit Rana who is pushing for the event to come to Northern Ireland

The Prime Minister of India has never been on an official visit to Belfast. Neither has the Prime Minister of Australia. In the normal run of things, if our first ministers want to meet them, they have to do the travelling themselves.

But there is a chance that both will be coming here in 2018, along with the Prime Minister of Canada and 50 other heads of state.

For the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which is held every two years, is coming next to the UK - and no one knows yet which city it will gather in. Only one thing is already decided: it won't be London.

Glasgow and Cardiff are rumoured to be pitching for it and some private lobbying has been going on to coax the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into choosing Belfast.

The people behind the lobbying effort are Lord Diljit Rana of Malone and Brian Scott, a former head of Oxfam Ireland.

The first Minister, Arlene Foster, is also on board.

She says: "This meeting would, once again, put the eyes of the world on Northern Ireland and provide the platform to share our world-renowned welcome and hospitality.

"As First Minister, I stand ready to assist in any way in making this a reality."

East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas is chairman of the all-party group on hospitality and tourism and is thinking about all the hotel rooms that would be filled by the heads of government and their entourages.

Sammy says: "I have already spoken to some of our tourism chiefs about the huge potential of hosting this global summit, which, I believe, could be one of the most high-profile events ever witnessed in Northern Ireland.

"I will certainly do all I can to help to secure the 2018 summit for Northern Ireland and I call on all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to back our efforts to achieve this."

As yet there has been no comment from Sinn Fein.

Diljit Rana and Brian Scott have already been to a CHOGM, a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the last one in Malta. They have seen what a huge event one of these meetings is.

Brian Scott says: "I have been working with the Commonwealth Secretariat on a project for the past 18 months, during which I attended the last CHOGM, which was held in Malta. There I saw the tremendous economic impact the week-long meeting and all the preliminary preparations had on the Maltese economy.

"Firstly, there were more than thousand delegates and officials requiring hotel accommodation, meals, drinks, entertainment and more for a week. Then there were more than 300 business people from all over the world coming to the business forum. What a fantastic opportunity for Northern Ireland's business sector."

Brian Scott and Lord Rana have been lobbying the Commonwealth to support another plan, to support a conference here on the practice of conflict resolution. This plan would draw on expertise here and in India.

They have put that idea to the General Secretary of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland.

Lord Rana says: "We know her well. We have met her a couple of times. We have also invited some of the senior people of the commonwealth secretariat to introduce them to Northern Ireland to meet with different people, our politicians, some of whom were involved with strife, our Police Service, which has made a transition from the RUC, and other community groups and telling them what has been achieved in Northern Ireland. The last official who came was very impressed."

That was Nabeel Goheer, Director of Strategic Planning and Evaluation.

He was in Belfast a week ago and met with former paramilitaries, several people involved in reconciliation work and visited the Wave Trauma Centre. Lord Rana adds: "We have raised with them the ideas that the CHOGM should come to Northern Ireland and they have no objection to it. But it is not for them to promise that. They can only brief about what they have seen here and what the situation is.

"But it is up to the British Government. It is up to our First Minister and deputy First Minister and then it is up to the FCO to really select which city the CHOGM will go to."

Lord Rana says that the Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, has been approached "and knows that we will be lobbying for CHOGM to come to Northern Ireland".

He says: "I am told he said, 'Interesting idea, let me talk to my staff'.

"So, my plea to our First Minister and deputy First Minister is that we should go for it and there is a big opportunity for Northern Ireland to develop our tourism, to create more awareness about Northern Ireland."

There are several good reasons for the Commonwealth heads of government to meet in Belfast.

It gets round any impression that Britain has a dominant role to play, Belfast not being, in fact, as British as Finchley.

And, though some will prefer to whisper this, it raises the question of how much involvement the Republic of Ireland would have.

It seems inconceivable that with 53 heads of government billeted here for a week, the President wouldn't at least come up and say hello.

That, some think could entice the Republic to join.

The current resistance to joining appears to come from a sense that membership would imply respect for the tradition of colonisation, but other former colonies seem not to have this difficulty, including some which suffered grotesquely under British rule right into the 20th century.

Diljit Rana cites India as an example of a former colony which is happy to be part of the Commonwealth.

"The Queen has played a wonderful role, but after the Queen, anybody could be the president of the Commonwealth. It could be someone from India, or other countries. It is not in the rules that it has to be someone from Britain.

"And there are member countries which were not colonies of Britain, Mozambique, for example, and others are in negotiations to join. They see the value, the trade value, the cultural value, in joining this group of countries."

Lord Rana believes that, if the CHOGM is held in Northern Ireland, the Republic will have representation there at some level, if only observer status.

He has been campaigning for years to persuade the Republic to join the Commonwealth.

"Ten, or 15, years ago, this was not getting much response. But since the royal visit to Dublin, and other things happening, there are now questions being asked and we are hosting other meetings on the same subject."

Last year, in Dublin, Lord Rana helped open a chapter of the Royal Commonwealth Society to further the campaign to persuade the Republic to join. That launch was attended by the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

And he believes that the Republic may send competitors to the next Commonwealth Games.

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